Minnesota Timberwolves (24-16) host New Orleans Pelicans (19-18)
After a brief zenith of optimism where the Wolves were playing some of the best basketball of the season, the team has now dropped two games in a row, both on the road against the Brooklyn Nets and the Boston Celtics. The Wolves have not looked particularly bad, and the thin roster is still short-handed without Jeff Teague, but tonight is an important game for the Wolves to win.
The Pelicans are one of the Western Conference foes that the Wolves need to consistently beat in order to maintain their status as the best of the rest in the West. After the top three of the Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets, and San Antonio Spurs, the Wolves have been able to maintain their 4th seed in the Western Conference hierarchy.
To continue to do this, as well as ascertain how the Wolves are improving from last year, it’s helpful to take a look at how the Wolves are doing against their counterparts of the Thunder, Pelicans, Blazers, and Nuggets.
So far, the Wolves are 2-0 against the Nuggets, 2-0 against the Pelicans, 1-0 against the Blazers, and 2-1 against the Thunder. Those records, essentially, have propped them up so far in the standings.
The Wolves, at this point, are a team that has become quite familiar. They will get to the free throw line, create a lot of turnovers while rarely turning the ball over themselves, and look to grind out wins in the fourth quarter.
Even the replacement of Tyus Jones for Jeff Teague due to injury has not created all that much drama, as Jones is more easily seen through the lens of what he does not do rather than what he does on the court.
Instead, our questions mostly boil down to franchise altering questions like if Karl-Anthony Towns can become a solid defensive player or can Andrew Wiggins realize is potential? At the other end of the spectrum, we simply bandy criticisms about rotations, minutes, and usage of rotation players. There are really no middle-ground questions as we know, for the most part, who these players are.
The Pelicans do not have the same feel. This is probably due to their wonky lineups, which often feature two centers and two point guards. Somehow, they are trying to make the grouping of DeMarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis, Jrue Holiday, and Rajon Rondo, plus rando wing, work in today’s NBA.
The team is also oddly a little better on the road than they are at home. At home, the Pelicans have the 30th ranked defensive rating in the league, while on the road that number jumps all the way to 11th in the NBA. Defense has been the big problem for the Pelicans this year, which may be an inherent problem when one has Cousins in the lineup, but it is amazing that the team can have such a discrepancy in their home/away splits. The Pelicans play like the 7th best team in the NBA on the road, in terms of net rating, yet drop all the way to 18th in net rating at home.
The interesting matchups to watch tonight are the bigs and the wings. Towns vs Davis/Cousins is obviously the big draw. Towns has been playing some of the best basketball of his career of late, yet he has played some of his worst games against the Pelicans duo. He has gotten into foul trouble both games, playing just 20 and 22 minutes in each game, so Gorgui Dieng will likely be essential tonight. If there is a night for Nemanja Bjelica to get back on track, it would be great it if it was tonight.
On the wings, Jimmy Butler and Wiggins have such an obvious advantage and Butler has been the reason the Wolves won the previous two matchups. The Pelicans just don’t really have anyone that can matchup with the star power that the Wolves have on the wing, although Tony Allen can certainly be an annoying pest on defense. The Wolves will likely have to win this one on the back of Jimmy Butler yet again.
Projected Starting Lineups
Prediction - Wolves 108 - Pelicans 105. Wolves get back on track and continue defeating their Western Conference contemporaries.